Piercings and tattoos have been around for centuries, and can have cultural significance for a person. Because teens are experimenting with their identities they may be drawn to piercings or tattoos as a form of expression or rebellion. This may be especially true when a teen’s friends have piercings or tattoos or when role models they admire do.
Unlike some forms of self-expression like hair coloring or clothing, however, piercings and tattoos leave permanent marks, and can have negative side effects. They can also be a sign of deviant behavior or mental health problems in teens. Sometimes piercings or tattoos are a form of self injury or self harm, resulting from teens trying to express their negative feelings or seeking attention or help.
In many states, teens need their parent’s permission to legally get a tattoo or piercing. If a teen wants a piercing or tattoo, parents should talk to the teen about why they want it and the possible negative effects. If a teen is going to get a piercing or tattoo, they should be certain they are doing so safely. The shop should be clean and the person doing the tattoo or piercing should know what they are doing and exercise proper sanitation. Do not have piercings done with a piercing gun, which may not be sterile.
Other precautions for teens getting piercings or tattoos include:
- They should be up to date on their immunizations, such as Hepatitis B and tetanus.
- The tattoo or piercing should be done by a professional, one that is licensed if licensing is required by your state
- The person treating you should wash their hands thoroughly first and should wear clean disposable gloves
- The needles and dyes should be brand new and sealed in their package, or should have been thoroughly sterilized before use with an autoclave.
- Any needles and gauze used should be thrown away in a sealed container after the procedure
- After the tattoo or piercing, the care instructions should be followed carefully while the wounds heal. If there seems to be any problem, see a doctor right away.
Tattoos and piercings can have negative side effects that teens may not be aware of. They can lead to:
- Pain during the procedure and while the tattoo or piercing is healing
- Infections, including potentially deadly infections like staph, tetanus, hepatitis B or C, or HIV
- Excessive and unsightly scarring
- Uncontrolled bleeding
- Nerve damage
- Allergic reactions
- Misdiagnoses or interference with medical procedures like MRIs
- Difficulty finding a job
- Increased risk of some diseases and damage to the mouth, with mouth or tongue piercings
- Skin growing over the jewelry in piercings
- Pyogenic granulomas, growths which must be removed
- Temporary tattoos, like decals and henna, can also cause allergic reactions.
- Because of the risks of infection, teens may not be able to donate blood for at least a year after their piercing or tattoo.
- Removing tattoos can be expensive and painful, and usually does not leave the area looking completely healed. When piercings are removed they can leave scars and holes, and if they are accidentally ripped out the resulting injuries can cause deformities.
Up to half of teens have body piercings, which are more popular among females than males. They are also more common with teens who:
- Have less self control
- Are more likely to engage in dangerous thrill-seeking behavior
- Act impulsively
- Have more negative emotions
- Tend to lash out verbally when angry
Body piercing may be associated with risky behaviors, including:
- Abuse of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs
- Sexual activity, especially risky sexual activity
- Russian roulette
- Antisocial behavior
- Suicidal thoughts
Excessive tattoos or piercings may be a form of self harm. Teens may engage in self harm because of low self esteem and inability to find healthy ways to deal with their emotions. Self harm may cause teens to feel even worse about themselves and to continue the cycle of self harm. Counseling can help with this problem.
Self-harm can indicate a number of mental health problems:
- History of abuse
- Post traumatic stress disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Developing borderline personality disorder
Piercings and tattoos are not always a sign of psychological or emotional problems, but they are associated with these problems, so parents, doctors, or others who are concerned about a teen who has or is interested in piercings and tattoos should consider the possibility. It is also a good idea to talk to the teen to help them examine why they want piercings or tattoos and determine if they may have unresolved emotional problems that should be dealt with. Parents should teach teens to value and respect themselves and their body, and encourage them to find healthy outlets for self-expression and for negative feelings, such as calming music, poetry, journals, exercise, or meditation.
Robert Preidt, MedlinePlus Health Day, “Body Piercing: Sign of Deviance or Normal Practice?” [online]
American Academy of Dermatology, “Tattoos, Body Piercings, and Other Skin Adornments” [online]
Mayo Clinic, “Tattoos: Understand risks and precautions” [online]
Nemours, TeensHealth, “Body Piercing” [online]
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Facts for Families, “Self-injury in Adolescents” [online]